Community plagued by bridge flooding

By Alex Bridges

MAURERTOWN — An isolated community in Shenandoah County where its access route falls victim to flooding has again asked the state for help.

Bear Paw Road serves as the sole route in and out of the Black Bear Crossing community. But the one-lane, low-water bridge often floods when the Shenandoah River swells, trapping residents inside for days. Both Bear Paw Road and the bridge are privately owned and maintained.

Community resident Todd Steiner spoke to the Board of Supervisors and a Virginia Department of Transportation official earlier this month and told them he had to walk his children across the flooded bridge in the dark after a snowstorm.

Steiner said Monday he expects the river to flood the bridge again when the snow melts.

But the community’s residents can’t afford the cost to build a new bridge, Steiner said Monday. VDOT estimates a replacement bridge could cost upward of $6 million.

“I think there are more options to explore,” Steiner said.

VDOT Assistant Residency Administrator Edwin Z. “Ed” Carter has said the state agency investigated several options available to help the community — all of which come at a cost.

Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz plan to hold a town hall meeting on the subject Monday at the Maurertown Brethren Church. Their predecessors, Sharon Baroncelli and Dennis Morris, also had spent time with state officials in the past few years in an effort to help the community.

Attorney Kermit Racey lobbied in 2011 to have the state take over the road and bridge. A bill presented by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, in the Virginia General Assembly in 2012 sought to bring the bridge into the state road system failed to pass.

VDOT can’t fund any improvements to the bridge or the road because it is not in the state system.

Black Bear Crossing homeowners began asking for help from the state in the mid-1990s, Steiner said. He and his family moved to the community in 2006. Steiner estimates the bridge, built in the mid 1960s, floods six or seven times a year and each event lasts about three days.

Steiner admitted he did not foresee the problem, but also wasn’t warned by the home’s previous owner.

“I was foolish,” Steiner said. “I realized it was a private bridge … People just don’t own bridges. Usually the state has some involvement.”

While the road remains under private ownership and maintenance, the community does see visitors travel the road and cross the bridge to gain access to the river for boating, Steiner said.

“People don’t abide by the signs,” Steiner said. “There’s no enforcement.”

Black Bear Crossing consists of 119 lots, 45 of which contain homes with 18 serving as permanent residences. The bridge spans approximately 335 feet from where state maintenance of Bear Paw Road ends.

VDOT would need to build a two-lane bridge for the community because of the potential construction of more homes there.

VDOT already plans to replace the one-lane, low-water bridge on Headley Road that lies 1.3 miles upstream from Black Bear Crossing in 2016 at a cost of about $2 million. The state-maintained Headley Road serves one permanent resident and 8-10 cabins before it reaches a dead end.

Steiner questioned why the nearby bridge on Headley Road, which serves far fewer residents, is under the state system. Steiner has suggested that the state relocate Headley Road and the bridge replacement to a point halfway between the two routes as allowed under Virginia code.

VDOT officials advised that the river is wider at the proposed site and would require a longer bridge. The agency would need to build about 0.6 of a mile of secondary road to connect the new bridge to the existing Headley Road. VDOT would need land from at least four property owners as right-of-way.

Other options include:
• Building a one-lane, low-water bridge at the current site and at less cost that would not solve the flooding problem
• Leave the existing bridge and build a walkway for emergency access by foot during floods at a cost of approximately $750,000. Flooding and emergency vehicle access would remain a problem.
• A state-standard road linking the community to the new Headley Road bridge at a price of $2.8 million that could be eligible under VDOT’s cost-sharing program

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com